When did sports TV become expensive to watch?

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L.A. Lakers fans who can’t catch Wednesday’s game at home have three choices:

1) Wait until their TV distributor signs a deal with Time Warner Cable

2) Change distributors or

3) Watch it elsewhere.

That’s different from last season when fans could watch televised Lakers games for free. When did that activity become expensive and exclusive?

Experts trace it back to 1939, during the first televised viewing of a college baseball game: Columbia versus Princeton. That led to more sports on TV-  boxing matches were especially big -  in the 1940s. Few people could see the broadcasts unless they paid for a TV set or went to places like a neighborhood bar that had one.

Back then, TV retailers loved the idea of putting sports on air, because it helped them convince the heads of households — generally men  — to buy a set, said Robert Thompson, who teaches about television and pop culture at Syracuse University.

In the 1970s, pay-per-view started. Consumers were willing to pay to watch live special events like big boxing matches.

“Sporting events were the perfect kind of programming,” Thompson said. “If they got enough juice and promotion, these are … events that you have to watch live, and no one wants to wait until they get a pirated DVD.”

Decades ago and now, advertisers place their commercials during live sports games because consumers watch the ads, said Courtney Brunious of USC’s Sports Business Institute. With  other programming, viewers can record what they want to watch and fast-forward through the commercials.

ESPN also contributed to the growth of sports TV. The network began in 1979 as cable started to penetrate American households big time. The idea behind cable channels was to promote specialty niches that appeal to specific groups of viewers.

“The idea was, they were going to be like utilities,” Thompson said. “You turn on your faucet and water comes out. You turned on ESPN and sports came out.”

At the start of 1980, 23 percent of Americans had cable in their homes, Thompson said. That proportion doubled in a few years, he added.

These days, people who pay for cable sometimes have to fork over even more for access to the sports they want to see. Analysts say that comes with the territory. The more sports viewers demand, the more they're willing to pay for the content.

In the last decade, specialty sports cable networks have proliferated. Their business model is based on subscriptions instead of eyeballs for particular sporting events, so these channels enjoy a steadier revenue stream, analysts say.

All that creates a dilemma for Lakers fans without access to the two Time Warner Cable sports networks that will carry most Lakers games. If their TV distributors don't pay for Time Warner Cable's networks, then Lakers fans can't watch most games at home.

There may be a silver lining in this. Thompson said that although some sports can cost money to view, TV carries many more events now than in the 1940s at the dawn of the medium. 

“The bottom line is there is a lot more sports, period,” Thompson said. And most of them are free.

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